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High school students get a look at restaurant work

Most employees in the restaurant and hospitality industry remember their first entry-level job — washing dishes, hosting, busing and waiting on tables or working the register.

Three out of four Americans got their first job in a restaurant. In California, the industry employs over 1.6 million people, which is roughly 10% of the state's total workforce, according to the California Restaurant Association (CRA). That number is expected to increase at least 9.1% over the next decade.

Over 2,800 high school students at 44 participating schools in California recently took part in a day of hands-on job training and leadership building.

The CRA hosted the Force in Training (FIT) Day on Tuesday, bringing together leading professionals in the food and hospitality industry to speak to high school students who are interested in being part of the food and hospitality industry.

With chapters in Orange County, Los Angeles, and Fresno, the CRA Foundation — a philanthropic arm of the California Restaurant Assn. — is celebrating 35 years building futures through programs and scholarships, said its executive director Alysha Harshfield.

"What we're bringing to them through FIT are the soft skills that will help make them successful when they get that most important first job, and set them onto positive paths for careers in our industry or any industry they choose," Harshfield said in a press release.

By providing frequently updated, resume-ready classroom and online curriculum to students in the program, the organization hopes to build job readiness training in the early years of finding their first jobs, at no cost to the schools.

Students are also given a complimentary online test following the course that mirrors the FIT Day workshop, where upon completion they receive a FIT certificate that can be added to their resumes.

25 culinary arts and business administration students at Northwood High School in Irvine participated in the morning's event, which featured leaders from local Orange County businesses, including Vine Restaurant in San Clemente, Ironwood in Laguna Hills, Mendocino Farms, and hot dog chain Wienerschnitzel.

"Getting to hear from industry professionals about their personal stories and experiences is really great," said Kristin Motooka, a culinary arts teacher at Northwood High, who helped organize the school's FIT Day. "The students get to see what it's really like to be interviewed and work with these people."

CRA Foundation also supports ProStart, a two-year, culinary arts and hospitality management career-exploration program for high school students. A CRA workforce-ready certificate is also available to students who pass the ProStart program, and for those who have achieved the California food handler certification.

On FIT Day, students are introduced to the different aspects of a career in the food service and hospitality industry, with fundamentals such as building teamwork and communication, gaining experience and training certifications, and learning practical skills like how to build a resume.

"It's awesome that so many local Orange County businesses and industry professionals are donating their time to make this happen," Motooka added. "We're also able to build relationships with these partners through the foundation."

Steve Mintzer, chief operating officer of Mendocino Farms, talked to the students about building skills in order to be a good employee.

"Positive attitude, communication, and the openness to improve," Mintzer shared. "You go out there and you bring it, or you learn on your own — and if we can help, then let's do it."

Wienerschnitzel executives Rusty Bills, David Kreitlow and Matthew Steele talked about the attributes of being a leader and standing out in the workplace.

"The restaurant business is a good stepping stone, and it also gives you the flexibility to grow," said Steele, who shared his story of working up from busboy to server to being recruited for a management position. "Taking initiative to solve problems, having an influence, being confident, and leading by example — these are all skills that can help you get promoted."

"What other job gives you free food, and you get paid for it?" Bills said with a laugh.

Students in the classroom expressed excitement at the opportunity for job training.

"I think the training gave me more confidence to start applying for jobs to build experience and how to apply these skills I learned even before my first day," said Nila Hamidian, 16, of Irvine.

"I thought [FIT Day] would be a good experience to get another view on a different career path," said senior Jacob Shapiro, 17, who shared that confidence was his takeaway from the program.

"I tend to second guess myself a lot, like how I come off to everyone else," Jacob said. "You can have confidence, but applying what you've learned and showing it is another thing. The application of learning is essential."

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